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Hawaii News

Neighbor island front-line workers step up to get their COVID-19 vaccine shots

Nadia Schlosser was devastated the day she found out her patient in his early 20s had died from the novel coronavirus.

The charge nurse in the COVID-19 unit has witnessed about a half-dozen coronavirus deaths at Hilo Medical Center.

“It’s awful. When I heard about that, I was crying. It affects you because you’re fighting for them all, too,” she said. “You just don’t think it’s going to take that turn. He thought he was going to go home soon, and he did not.”

It’s been especially hard, she said, to see her patients in isolation at the end of their lives with no family or friends by their side.

“They’re by themselves. Their family can’t be there even just to hold their hand, to kiss them, to tell them that they love them. It can be really scary and really isolating to just be alone, some throughout their last days.”

That is why Schlosser chose to be among the first front-line workers in the islands to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Hawaii has received 33,450 doses so far and expects a total of 61,450 by years’s end — 24% less than the 81,825 the state ordered — due to production delays.

Hospitals have begun immunizing health care workers, as first responders also line up to get the vaccine. About a fifth, or 936, of first responders were voluntarily immunized Tuesday and Wednesday. Long-term care residents and staff are scheduled to start being inoculated Monday, as health officials prepare to distribute the vaccine to independent doctors and medical practice staff who are considered high-risk.

“This vaccine to me is a light at the end of the tunnel. I wanted to cry when I was getting it because I just feel there’s hope,” said Schlosser, who has been struggling with her own mental health after taking care of the most severe coronavirus patients and being isolated herself. “There’s definitely a stigma to being a COVID nurse. Family and friends and people I used to spend time with are afraid to spend time with me. It definitely takes a mental toll on the health care workers, too.”

Health care workers on the front lines have been battling the disease for the past nine months, even though the state has had relatively low COVID-19 hospitalizations compared with the mainland, where hospitals are overwhelmed and considering rationing health care in states like California, which on Christmas Eve became the first to top 2 million confirmed cases.

“This is not a hoax. It’s a reality,” Schlosser said. “It’s happening in the entire world, and nobody’s immune to it — we’re all at risk.”

Health officials reported 129 new coronavirus infections statewide, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 20,650 cases. The state’s official coronavirus death toll remains at 285 with no new deaths reported. The latest Department of Health cluster report found infections spreading at churches, temples and other places of worship, with four outbreaks in December on Oahu, two of which resulted in 50 cases.

“The public should be hopeful, even though they’re seeing a lot of infection. We’re hopeful that what will happen is the number of deaths and hospitalizations will decrease dramatically because vaccinations are focused on the most vulnerable groups right out of the gate,” said Dan Brinkman, the East Hawaii regional CEO for the Hawaii Health Systems Corp., which operates the Hilo hospital. “Over half of the COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have come from nursing homes. By vaccinating all long-term care residents, we just prevented a whole bunch of deaths this new year.”

Health care leaders are hoping to educate and encourage as many residents who are undecided about the vaccine to take the shot.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen deaths up close from many of those diseases that vaccines have prevented,” Brinkman said. “Unless you know someone directly that died of COVID, there’s a tendency to think it’s all fake news. We have to win the hearts and minds of the undecided. I don’t think we’re going to get out of this economic crisis we’re in, let alone watch our kids play soccer on the weekends, if we don’t get enough of us vaccinated. Everybody has a responsibility, period, just to help out our neighbors.”

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